The story of Think Circus begins with a tantrum. The tantrum thrown by me, Kat, as I tried to learn circus skills for the first time.
‘This is stupid. I’m not doing it!’ I shouted as I threw the juggling balls across the room in frustration. Then suddenly, it was as if I could see myself from the outside, and I had the thought that if I reacted like this to everything I wasn’t immediately good at, I would be throwing tantrums (and objects!) for the rest of my life. I made myself go over and pick up the juggling balls, and continued to drop them as I practised. I managed to learn a simple cascade that day, and the immeasurable feeling of pride and achievement was like nothing else I’d experienced.
I was one of many children who were lucky enough to think in a similar way to the academic teaching models around as I went through the education system. I was told I was good at lots of things, and I believed it. It’s taken me a lot of my life to realise that this self-belief actually came with some caveats. I was brilliant until something was difficult, and then I would quit. As a child, teenager, and young adult I was stuck with lots of limiting beliefs:
- You can only be good at something if you’re naturally talented. Otherwise you can get better, but it’s a lot of effort and not worth it.
- Being good at things is who you are. You should never fail in front of people or they will stop thinking you are good.
- Exercise feels horrible, but you should do it because otherwise you’ll be fat/unpopular.
- You shouldn’t make yourself do things you don’t enjoy, because if it doesn’t come naturally it’s not meant for you.
These are just a few of the ways I used to think, and I had no idea how much they held me back. I just thought they were truths about life.
When I discovered circus, over ten years ago, it wasn’t so much a case of these beliefs gradually fading as a series of brilliant moments. Being part of circus projects like the Commonwealth Youth Circus in 2014, I found a community who also embodied the new principles I was discovering. I learned a lot, but more than that I noticed new patterns in my learning. I had studied psychology for two years at university, and I began to read about sports science and education methods. I began to teach regular adult circus classes and to see the changes in people’s self-confidence as they got better at a skill and recognised that improvement in themselves. I watched these moments happen, again and again, and the thought processes:
- That’s impossible! I could never do that.
- Ok, I’m trying it, but it’s not going to work
- It didn’t work, but I’ll make an adjustment and try it again
- It worked! I did it! That means it looked impossible, but it wasn’t really.
- How many other things look impossible, but are actually things I can do?
Mentoring others to recognise their own learning processes is a privilege, and I believe it’s one of the best ways to equip someone for many of life’s challenges. To know that you can keep trying despite failure, that you always have the capacity to improve and learn, and that physical activity can be fun, rewarding and leave you feeling happier.
Why circus? It’s true you could recognise these learning skills and the principles of growth mindset in action through lots of different disciplines, physical or otherwise.
I find that circus holds a certain magic, especially for children and young people. By definition, it pushes the boundaries of possibility. It kindles creativity and weirdness while relying on the limits of practical physics and physicality. It’s impossible-looking but attainable, and in its liminal world we are disoriented enough to question our assumptions. And somehow, by going through these experiences, we transform into a person we’d much rather be.